04/05/2017 03:58 SAST | Updated 04/05/2017 03:58 SAST

Why Do African And White Feminists Fail To Unite?

There is a notion that African women are voiceless and are incapable to defend themselves, which is the furthest thing from the truth.

Steve Debenport/ Getty Images

As early as the 17th century and into the 20th century, white women from Europe and North America, challenged the social contract that guided society, of which the right to vote and work respectively were awarded to white males only. Decades thereafter, the feminist movement has grown and has birthed conversations of intersecting issues, conversations of race, class, sexual orientation and the LGBTI-Q movement, and in so doing has exposed how these intersections reveal various systems of oppression.

In the past three to five years, a conversation has swept through the movement around these issues. It is taking place in various spaces, within our communities, churches, and universities. Whether or not these conversations yield the desired outcomes, is a different debate altogether. The feminist movement with its intersecting issues has managed to create dialogues and more so this one too. That although one finds, a lot of women and men involved in the movement, the movement remains divided as a result of race, and thus the African vs white feminist dialogue.

I think we are past that ignorant phase in society where we assumed that feminism is about being anti-men or that feminists in particular are angry women who hate men. bell hooks writes in her book, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center, that "feminism is a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression." She further explains that according to this definition, we are thus given an understanding that we, as both women and men are socialised to accept sexist thought and action.

Having said that, the more historically known and basic definition of feminism is that it is a movement that seeks to achieve political, economic and social equality of both sexes, understanding that those spaces were previously and in some aspects continue to reject the participation and contribution of women. But why, even in understanding the definition of the movement, is there a disconnect, between African women and white women who identify with this ideology?

Mary Kalawole articulates this reality in Transcending incongruities: rethinking feminisms and the dynamics of identity in Africa, that when addressing gender in the African context, one needs to be cognisant of the historical and cultural dynamics, and that the continued failure to understand this context, leads to the many misconceptions of the ideology with Africans and in my opinion, the ignorance and arrogance of white feminists.

The reality that African feminists like myself face is that when white feminists preach of the movement, they ignore the fact that they are more likely to excel within social, political and mostly economic spaces because of the privilege they carry. Fundamentally, white women very rarely engage and address their historical role as the coloniser towards African women, the colonised.

A unification of the two groups, is more likely to occur when white feminists in their "quest" for equality take responsibility for the privilege they carry.

According to Oyewumi (1997), many African people and in particular the Yoruba people of Nigeria, were genderless and used seniority, age and lineage as a means of accessing power (socio-economic and political). Furthermore, colonialism, resulted in the "role" of the woman being that, which is not of man, and thus secondary. So in other words, what colonialism did was expose the role, position and value of white women to white men, that of being subordinate and not worthy of legal and political privileges and rights, if you like.

The reality is that white women benefitted through the oppression of Africans and in some aspects, particularly in terms of economic emancipation, continue to benefit more than African women, a privilege that is historically foreign to them, and one which African women were historically exposed to. The rejection of white feminists and the reluctance to unite with white feminists lies in the reality that white feminists fail to appreciate the cultural and historical contexts of African women which shape their realities, such as race; and their encounter with colonialism of which white women contributed to.

In addition to that and fundamental to African women is the family structure, culture and tradition, religion and the reality of existing with those realities in a globalised and modern society. The disconnect exists because white feminists continue to speak on issues of women as if that is a generic reality of all women, more so, there is a notion that African women are voiceless and are incapable to defend themselves, which is the furthest thing from the truth. A unification of the two groups, is more likely to occur when white feminists in their "quest" for equality take responsibility for the privilege they carry and start to address that injustice within the spaces they occupy.

Fundamentally, white feminists can take a seat and let African women drive their own stories, or in the words of Mary Kolawole, "it is a matter of letting African women define themselves as they wish, so we can stop the dogmatic imposition of 'isms' and get on with the practical aspects of the struggle to empower African women and stop oppression and gender inequality."